Julian Charrière recently stood atop an iceberg and melted the whole thing with a blowtorch. The thing is, the photographs of that performance are not even the most arresting work he's got on display at Dittrich & Schlechtriem's booth in the Untitled art fair.
What is? Probably the machine that captures pigeons and sprays them with bright dyes before they are released back into city squares.
More on the pigeons in a moment.
"I was trying to melt down an iceberg but there's no way for me to melt it all, so it was always going to be a failure," Charrière says of The Blue Fossil Entropic Stories. Every day, regular folks contribute to the melting of icebergs through energy consumption but only the most dedicated strap a blowtorch on their backs and risk a 30-yard plunge into the waters off Iceland.
For most of us, the environmental destruction we cause is passive and distant enough to be ignored, and certainly is not simultaneously preserved and negated in a photograph.
But for Charrière, "I can involve myself in that process of melting down. But it's still not happening; I can only melt what's above the water."
Aesthetically, the photographs of the performance reflect a loneliness and hopelessness: moody blues and greys, the unnatural shaping of the melting iceberg amidst an otherwise untouched seascape, and the lone figure looking like a space explorer from a 1960s science fiction B-film.
"And I'm really interested in time and perception, in how time can be physical," he says. "The iceberg is a storage of time, especially if you think about drill coring [as a climatological technique]. So I'm not just melting ice but I'm also burning information. It's a kind of dying."
Charrière sees another performance, I Dig Myself Into a Hole, as a second part of this exploration. He went to Ethiopia and quite literally dug a pit around himself. When the hole became too deep for him to remove the dirt himself, he hired locals to assist with the work. For the French-Swiss artist, it's impossible to separate the history of colonialism in Africa from Charrière's gesture.
"As a white guy going to Africa, there's more to it than me just trapping myself," he says. "But it's also about time. In nature, time is a verticality. In a storybook, time is horizontal. But the more you dig, the more you go into the past."
A key interest of Charrière's is changing perception of public spaces by those who inhabit it. In one project, he sprinkled flour on piles of earth at construction sites, making them resemble snow-capped mountains. In Some Pigeons Are More Equal Than Others, a collaboration with Julius von Bismarck, he built that pigeon painting machine. Some of the captured pigeons were immediately released; others were taken to a studio to be photographed and then released en masse.
In Copenhagen, Charrière and von Bismarck released 30 of the dyed birds into a city square. Later, at the 2012 Venice Biennale, they released 60.
"When I was younger, I worked with ornithological groups," Charrière says. "We would put rings around the birds' legs and paint their wings so we could track them. It's the same food dye that we use now. It's harmless."
Even so, Charrière is aware that the pigeons are not willing participants in his art. This, as much as employing Africans in manual labor to produce work which will then be sold in art galleries, is a knowing political act.
"Pigeons are like old iPhones. There were communication devices for thousands of years. We stole them from nature and bred them. And then we let them go into the wild. They aren't wild but they aren't domesticated anymore, either. The are completely dependent on us and couldn't survive without the cities. Pigeons are hated so much. People think they are dirty. They are killed but they are beautiful birds.
"Pigeons have come to use our infrastructure in different ways. By putting the focus on them, we can change the perspective on a city landscape."
And by photographing the dyed birds, Charrière allows his viewers to carefully observe the birds in a completely foreign context.
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"All these birds are like characters. They're almost like humans. There's the shy one, the proud one. They all have personalities," he says. "Soon, you're re-seeing the pigeon. Slowly, every pigeon starts to have color."